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Nothing But Good Intentions

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Open-access publishers have long known the challenges they face in changing the model for scientific journals. In a world where pedigree means everything, starting any new publication is tough. Turning the publishing model on its head could be next to impossible.

But now there is strong data to show the rest of us the real paradox in open-access publishing. The Study of Open Access Publishing, a European Union-sponsored project known as SOAP, has spent two years examining scientists' attitudes and behavior when it comes to publishing in traditional-model journals versus open-access publications. In a survey of 40,000 researchers across various scientific fields, SOAP found that 89 percent of respondents believe open access to be beneficial to their discipline — but only 53 percent had actually published at least one paper in such a journal. A separate SOAP study found that 39 percent of respondents avoided open-access journals because of a lack of funding for author fees, while 30 percent did so because there were no quality open-access publications in their particular fields.

Open access has some serious hurdles to clear before this large majority of supporters will actually view these journals as peers of traditional journals. Until that happens, all the support in the world won't help.

Setting aside the fundamental question of whether open access is indeed the best goal, and assuming that 89 percent of researchers are right about open access being beneficial, the question is how to get from here to there.

Moving ahead

Much of researchers' resistance to publishing in open-access journals stems from the lower impact factors they have compared to more established, traditional journals. Impact factors still matter when it comes to getting tenure, winning grants, and more.

How can we work within the system to improve this? For one thing, the keeper of the impact factor — Thomson Reuters — should be thinking about ways to incorporate additional metrics into its calculations. There should be a way to give credit for open-access article page views, the number of times those articles are forwarded, or even how many other websites link to them.

Alternatively, universities could direct their tenure committees to factor in that kind of data in determining the importance or prestige of a given publication. Institutions really looking to show support for open access could even make it a requirement for scientists seeking tenure to have at least one paper published in an open-access journal.

In the meantime, open-access publishers have to do their part to embrace the current methods for rating journals to put themselves on par with high-quality, traditional journals. Open-access journal editors need to court "celebrity" researchers and score the marquee papers to show junior faculty members that it is safe to publish with them, and to improve the perceptions of their journals even without altering their official impact factors. Another to-do for publishers: finding more revenue streams, such as advertising, to reduce the burden of those author fees.

All of these options represent adjustments to the current system. The only way I can imagine getting around these kinds of tweaks is for the grant-funding agencies to put the full-court press on open access, and make it a requirement for grantees to publish only in open-access journals. I do not see that happening, but it would certainly make for interesting changes.

Meredith Salisbury is editor in chief of GenomeWeb. Feel free to disagree with her at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Genome Technology.

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